Quite a few years ago my husband’s employer transferred my husband from Phoenix, Arizona to Austin, Texas to a new factory which had recently been built. The employer paid for house hunting trips, for all moving expenses including hotel rooms and rental cars and even helped pay the additional mortgage interest rates for the new residence in Austin which we had purchased. We had been living in Phoenix since our marriage several years before and were happy there, but the move to Austin was an opportunity for my husband to advance in his profession.
I thought about this event from my own life as I read the first three chapters of Ezra for my Bible study class. The book of Ezra is “historical” although not all of the details are exact and sometimes the names of historical persons or dates are given incorrectly. The story of Ezra begins with the movement of a large number of Jews from Babylon back to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple. The previous book of the Bible, 2 Chronicles, describes the events which led to Jerusalem and the Temple being destroyed and those Jews who survived the destruction being deported to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar.
According to the Navarre Bible commentary, ”the message of the historical books of the Bible, of which Ezra is one, is a story of God’s relationship with the Jewish people, that He never abandons them. The genealogical lists all serve to show that the exile in Babylon did not involve any breaks in the links binding the people to their ancestors, the patriarchs…Therefore, their own descendants must stay loyal to the Covenant that their fathers made; it establishes Israel as a holy nation set apart from the rest, to be devoted to God…”
Cyrus was king of Persia from 559 to 529 BC. “When he entered Babylon in triumph (after overthrowing the Babylonian empire) in 539 BC… he heard about the position of the deportees from Jerusalem and facilitated their return to their country to rebuild the temple of their God.” Again according to the Navarre commentary, “God uses a pagan king to achieve his saving purpose for the chosen people…moreover, the seventy years of exile prophesied by Jeremiah are shortened by Cyrus’ decree which causes the return from exile to happen in 538 BC.”
The actual number of people who return to Jerusalem is very large, even though it represents a small proportion of the Jews in the diaspora.” According to the Biblical text the whole assembly which returned were 42,360 and additionally men and maidservants and male and female singers. The distance this group traveled was over 900 miles and the journey took some months.
I thought about the people who had been exiled – people of all ages forced to move from their country, from their homes, away from the Temple which was the center of their culture and life. How did they survive? No doubt many died on the journey from Jerusalem to Babylon and many more died in trying to settle in the new environment. Where did they live? How did they find work? How many continued to follow the faith of their ancestors? How difficult it must have been to move to a new location with a different culture, with different ways of doing necessary things.
I thought again about the move I made with my family. It was complicated but made easier for us by the help we received from my husband’s employer. We had funds from the sale of our old home to purchase a new one. Food was readily available in our new environment. My husband had employment although in a new location, but his salary was not in jeopardy. We could continue to live in Austin much as we had in Phoenix. We had to set up a new home, discover places to shop for necessities, find new doctors and dentists, but it was all simple compared with the problems faced by the exiles to Babylon.
From the details supplied in the Bible, we know that some families thrived in the new environment for they became well to do. Many more individuals and families would not have been so fortunate. After 50 years of exile Cyrus tells the people they can return home. Who chooses to leave and who remains? How is that decision made? Are those who return the individuals who have been most faithful to the Law, who failed to acclimate themselves to the Babylonian society? The Bible does not tell us.
Those who were young when they were exiled – children perhaps who remembered their homes or those who believed that their families homes and land would be waiting for them – no doubt wanted to return and chose to do so. Did they realize what they would face once they arrived in the homeland? Did any of the exiles realize how difficult the journey would be – most would not have made the journey to Babylon 50 years prior unless they came as children? Most of the returnees walked 900 miles across what was likely inhospitable surroundings? How did they provide food for the people who returned? Was the food supplied by the king? What about water sources?
Even traveling a long distance in my own time is difficult. A route must be selected, preparations must be made. Roads are paved, provisions are easily obtained but there is still danger and difficulties to be faced. How was that done in the time of Ezra? Who was responsible? Who made the plans and arranged for provisions for the journey? Was it up to the individual to decide or did some leader decide who could return to Jerusalem? What criteria would be used to either allow or disallow an individual to return? Would the sick or elderly be allowed to make the journey or only those who were strong enough to face the rigors of the journey? Was the group accompanied by armed soldiers who protected the group?
There are so many questions which could be asked. For most of the questions we have no answer. All of this above was written because of a question asked in the workbook which accompanies the study. Question three asks: In your own words, explain the good news in Ezra 1:2-4. My answer was simple as are most of the answers I write in the workbook, but the question deserves so much more. “We are going home!”
I can’t help but feel the emotions that might have passed among the people living in this foreign and inhospitable place. Home! Much as we might feel in a similar circumstance. But as I have learned throughout my life, you can never go back. The previous home is never what you remembered. If you have an opportunity to visit that previous “home”, somehow it is changed and the rosy picture that you remember is very different from reality. I think it must have been the same for those who returned to Jerusalem. Now they had to make it their home again and it wouldn’t be easy. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah describe those difficulties.